The ache was there again this year. Settled down beneath the more present and relevant feelings, the ache gnawed, “something is wrong. something is missing.”
I have unfairly great memories of Christmas as a child. All my memories of it are in the same house, with the same people. Each year, at around 6:30, the four of us kids would tip toe downstairs to the living room, where the tree was always lit just dimly enough to cast a glow on all the presents; The presents! Most of them newly placed since the night before. Eventually mom and dad would saunter down the hall, all of us still in pajamas. The youngest of us that could read would read the entirety of the Golden Books version of the Christmas story. When it was over, dad would pick the baby Jesus figure up from above the grandfather clock, and set it in the manger above the fireplace. One by one we would take our stockings down from the fireplace, and each of us would watch the other discover what was inside. We savored the excitement, drawing out each step so that it wouldn’t end any faster than it had to. After breakfast, which always included an amazing souffle, we nestled back into our couch seats for round after round of gift giving.
Dad was a Christmas master. Married to my mom, who hated surprises, didn’t get most jokes, and bought her Christmas presents from the lists she insisted her loved ones complete for her, Christmas was dad’s day to go nuts. There were years we received presents he’d found for us 7 or 8 months earlier; A favorite sweater from the gift shop of a museum we’d visited, a CD of whale sounds because one of us expressed interest in a whale this one time, or the last piece of my mom’s antique book collection. It took dozens of phone calls to book stores across the country, but he’d found it.
Christmas had the potential to change your adolescent life. On Christmas, you could go from a kid with no Nintendo, to a Kid With A Nintendo!!! It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 80s, that was a huge change in one’s quality of life. On Christmas, your NFL pennant collection might finally get complete. The final Dairy Queen Blazers glass might be in one of those boxes.
20-25 years later, the strength of emotion that came with anticipating and experiencing Christmas doesn’t exist. There’s nothing in the adult life that comes close. But what is it about those feelings that made them so irreplaceable? Why is it so hard to transition from the receiver to the giver, and try to make memories for my kids the way my parents did for me? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?
My running theory is that as a child, you are repeatedly shown how much you are loved. It is abundantly clear that your happiness has been thoroughly considered, and deemed worthy of fulfillment. Contrast that with what we do as adults. We discuss amongst ourselves who we still “have to get something for,” or “which ones you’ve got covered” while “I’ll handle them, them and them.” And because that’s how we treat others at Christmas, we’re confident that’s how people are thinking about us. And so we start to wonder how many lists we’re on; for how many people have we reached “Need to get something for them” status? And it’s not about getting their present. It’s the hope that at least for a few minutes, somebody thought of us, and our happiness, and found it worthy of fulfillment.
I think the Christmas ache is the loss of childhood. It’s the realization that nobody loves us like they did when we were young. That we’re not the center of someone’s universe, not the person someone is staying up late to find that last antique book for. The things I had as a kid - the family bond, the shared anticipation, the companionship of a personal savior - those things are gone.
But I think the ache has had its last year. Being able to name it has made it lose its power. My dad set a great example of how to do it right, and I think I’m up for the challenge. I tried something new this year - getting presents for a few people that wouldn’t be on my “have to get something for” list. It helped me understand my dad’s love of Christmas, as the reward for giving the unexpected gift is immediate and lasting. Next year , having named and rejected the ache, I’ll be ready to set my kids up for their own Christmas ache.